45 years ago, in the summer of 1975, America saw the release of a new phenomena: the summer blockbuster. Ushered in by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, summers at the movies—for better and worse—have never been the same.
Across the country, as businesses re-open amid rising coronavirus cases in 22 states, Jaws is once again in theaters. But the beloved classic, re-released during a pandemic, looks very different in light of the coronavirus.
In part a story of a shark threatening a beach community, Jaws is also the story of a bombastic, anti-science mayor who willfully ignores the threat of an invisible murderous force for the sake of “summer dollars.” (Sound familiar?)
The film begins on July 4th weekend when a young woman is killed by a great white shark while skinny dipping. In order to prevent the deaths of other beach-goers, the new Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) tries to persuade the mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), to close the resort town’s beaches. The mayor, kowtowing to summer revenue, refuses to close the beaches. Soon, as the beachgoers seek to return to normalcy and trepidatiously return to the waters, the shark nevertheless persists in gobbling up unsuspecting swimmers. It soon becomes clear that life in the formerly quiet resort town of Amity will never be the same.
When local fishermen claim to have caught and killed the murderous great white, Mayor Vaughn simultaneously takes credit while disregarding the severity of the situation, telling reporters: “We have, in fact, caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers. But, as you see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are opened, and people are having a wonderful time.” (Sound familiar?)
But despite warnings from a shark expert, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), that the real shark is still out there, the mayor ignores these warnings. The beaches remain packed with eager bathers desperate for sand and surf. But when the shark attacks and kills a young boy in front of countless witnesses, only then does the mayor concede and hires Officer Brody, Hooper, and an irascible shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt and kill the deadly shark.
“Summer is over,” says Officer Brody to the mayor. “You are the mayor of Shark City.”
“I was acting in the town’s best interest,” the mayor defensively mumbles.
“That’s right,” says Brody, “and that’s why you are going to do the right thing.”
Brody, Hooper, and Quint set out on their journey to kill Jaws, which, they hope, will ultimately lead to the safe re-opening of the town’s revenue-rich beaches.
Like countless health care workers and public health officials, Officer Brody and the shark experts Hooper and Quint believe that public safety is paramount, and that a sustainable economy can’t re-start or flourish amid a public health tragedy.
Presently, we have our own Mayor Vaughn: local, state, and national leaders—spearheaded by President Trump—who, whether implicitly or explicitly, have decided that the economic cost of stay-at-home orders are too much. These leaders—rather than pressuring for wider testing and vaccine development, and rather than investing more wholeheartedly in economic stimulus and social services —have instead calculated that the lives of many of their citizens aren’t worth the loss in revenue.
“Go back in the water,” the leaders are telling us, falsely assuring us that the shark has been vanquished. With spikes in COVID-19 cases in 22 states, it’s dangerous and irresponsible to enact policies that willfully ignore the fact that thousands of new cases and hundreds continue to die each day.
The shark is still hunting and, to paraphrase Officer Brody, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”